When I was a kid, my family just scraping by, food stamps helped stock our meager kitchen in Chicago. Starting out as a journalist, I lived on $10 a week in New York and used food stamps because I didn’t have enough money to eat. I still make so little money as a journalist that I’m eligible for California’s version of food stamps, CalFresh.
As a reporter covering food in the Mission, I wanted to write about the experience of using public assistance as a barrier against hunger, so I decided to try to eat on a CalFresh budget for one week.
The typical CalFresh allowance, I found, barely serves as a barrier: $6.45 a day is the amount that most households qualifying for nutrition assistance will receive in October. “Nutrition assistance” is a fancy way of saying that CalFresh will help you a little each month, but likely not enough for you to really eat well.
Or, not as well as the person behind you in the supermarket who pulls in well above the federal poverty level in one paycheck. The average CalFresh household that gets $6.45 a day in food assistance — let’s say it has two people — must make less than $21,000 a year to qualify. On a budget like that in San Francisco, this CalFresh household probably won’t have much to supplement its government supplement when it needs extra food.
Between bouts of poverty and food insecurity, I’ve been privileged to settle into a comfortable habit of eating whenever I feel hungry, or when I get bored while watching a movie. The thing about this habit that’s difficult to break is the ease with which food comes and goes, and how little one needs to think about where the next meal is coming from.
Here’s what I’ve found are the keys to spending less than seven dollars a day on food: plan meals and compare prices. A menu is important, and hunting for the best bargain is essential.
Shopping for the best deal is easy if you have time, especially here. The Mission is filled with food markets whose produce stalls overflow onto sidewalks. It’s certainly not a food desert, but living on CalFresh can make it feel like one. I pass these markets every day, and recently remembered what it was like to eat on a seriously strict budget — how it felt to become obsessed with food because you knew you really couldn’t afford it.
I lived for one week on $6.45 a day. It was only one week, so my story is hardly authentic. I didn’t use an electronic benefit transfer card. I didn’t feel embarrassed to have only $6.45 to spend, because I was the only one who knew.
But during that week, the neighborhood was transformed from a food playground where I could eat whatever I wanted into a landscape that just provoked my hunger. Dining with friends here is important social currency, and the district’s delicious taquerias don’t take food stamps. A weakness for La Cumbre vegetarian burritos can blow an entire day’s allotment. After quickly eating melted cheese over beans smothered in avocado by myself on someone’s stoop, I got back on the wagon and was hungry for the rest of the day.
Eating on a budget shouldn’t mean sacrificing your health, but it’s not so easy to prepare three balanced meals with $6.45. The federal government has a suggestion for all American consumers. It’s called MyPlate, and it replaces the ubiquitous food pyramid. The plate suggests you fill it with fruits, vegetables, protein and grain, and then pair it with a glass of dairy beverage. I’m going to tell you right now, it’s impossible to do that at every meal for under $7. Milk alone will completely ruin your budget.
The cheapest gallon of milk I found was in a small cooler case at Lucky Pork Market, 2659 Mission St. On weekday mornings Lucky Pork is lively. The workers shout to each other as they stock shelves to the beat of mariachi music piped in from a radio in the back room. I ask if they take CalFresh, and the woman at the counter looks at me like I’m crazy. Of course. They sell milk at $3.29 a gallon for conventional vitamin D. That left me with $3.16 left to spend on breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Here’s my secret weapon: El Mexicano brand packaged foods. They are so incredibly cheap — a two-pound bag of white rice is only 99 cents. Pair that with a $1.79 can of pinto beans and you might have a meal and a half with rice left over for the next few days. Spending $6.07 total put me close to the budget for that day, and yet it wasn’t nearly enough food to keep me from feeling light-headed and tired later on.
I’m a vegetarian, and after a week on fake food stamps, I decided I might turn to meat if I went on CalFresh for real. Beef prices have increased over the last year, but Evergreen Market, 2539 Mission St., has managed to keep its by-the-pound price for beef brisket very low at $3.29. Also fascinating is the quality of Evergreen’s vegetables at such cheapish prices: 89 cents for a bunch of verdant spinach, 99 cents for a thick bundle of fresh green lettuce, 99 cents a pound for red bell peppers (are you kidding me?), green onions for some more change.
But I was worried the produce would go bad halfway through the week, and then I’d be out money and food. I picked up two bell peppers, a dozen eggs for 1.99 and a can of kidney beans for a dollar and a half. I passed on the brisket.
I cheated. Some days I was so hungry I couldn’t sleep. I broke down and ate a bigger meal than my fake budget allowed. I attempted this experiment two weeks ago, but had to stop because I became so ill it didn’t make sense to keep going. It’s important to note here that most of California’s 4 million people on food stamps can’t unlock a bank account for sustenance when no one is looking.
The in-between days when I wasn’t planning meals were rough. Sometimes I didn’t eat at all until dinner. On these days my vision blurred, I was grumpy and rude, and I couldn’t break into a run to catch a 22 Muni bus just about to pull away from the curb. If I couldn’t find something quick and easy at a market, it just wasn’t possible to eat on the run. I suppose I could have visited a qualifying Subway shop for a sandwich every day, but that would still have left me with almost no money for my other two meals. On Tuesday, I drank two Naked protein juices and bought a bottle of water. That was just under $6.45.
Thursday morning, it was time to break my fast with an overpriced, indulgent breakfast at a local cafe, Stable, at 2138 Folsom St. For the price of a two-day CalFresh budget, I ate a disappointing overcooked egg sandwich with bland white cheese and had a latte with scalded milk. As a bonus, I downed a chocolate scone fresh out of the oven. I ate it standing up, off to the side of the cashier line, and didn’t mind as people stared at my chocolate-covered fingers. I felt guilty about spending so much on a meal that two weeks ago would have been an afterthought.
It’s easier to taste the worth of a meal after a week of living on CalFresh, and it’s a lot easier to live on CalFresh when you know you’ll be done in seven days. For the rest of the food-poor in the Mission, there’s likely no $12 breakfast to look forward to.